The Knights Templar were held up as the shock troops of Christendom against the Muslim rulers of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. An order of warrior monks governed by strict rules and answerable only to the Pope in Rome. But after two centuries of crusading in the Arab world, they were accused of being too close to the enemy.
This led to horrific consequences for the Templars. Charged with heresy and other crimes too terrible to mention, they were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The poster boys of the Crusades were disgraced; their assets seized; and the leadership burned to death in public.
So…was there any truth in these accusations? Had the Knights Templar gone native in the Middle East? Did the Templars enjoy a very close relationship with the Arab world that angered Christian critics?
The Knights Templar and the Arab world
Let’s look at the Templar relationship with the Arab world and how it may have contributed to their violent demise:
- The Knights Templar were said to have agreed treaties with the Arab world that may have benefitted the order but ran contrary to the wider interests of the Crusader kingdoms – in other words, they were operating to their own agenda
- It was alleged, normally without any real evidence, that the knights promoted antagonism between Christians and Muslims when peace was possible and provoked attacks that need not have happened
- The Christian kings, princes, and bishops in the Middle East had no idea what deals the Knights Templar were striking with Arab opponents because they were only answerable to the Pope
- Sometimes the Templars publicly opposed an act of hostility by Christian rulers towards the Muslim enemy and this was condemned as treachery by their fellow crusaders
- When the Kingdom of Jerusalem made a treaty with the Arab foe, they didn’t really feel obliged to be honourable and stick to it. But the Templars did – and that was viewed as odd
From a Christian point of view, there was worse – far worse. The Knights Templar fought alongside Muslims in what is now Spain during the long crusade on the Iberian Peninsula. This raised eyebrows. They took local Bedouin in the Levant under their protection and horror of horrors, the Templar preceptor of Sidon – Matthew le Sarmage – even declared himself a blood brother with the Sultan of Egypt. An unbreakable bond with a leading figure in the Arab Middle East.
An Arab chronicler declares the Knights Templar are his friends
One Arab chronicler, Usamah bin Munqidh, referred to the Knights Templar as his friends. They made allowances for his prayer times even allowing Usamah to use what had been the Al Aqsa mosque (and is again today) but had been converted into the Templar HQ in Jerusalem. A certain Christian objected to the sight of Usamah praying and was promptly removed by the Templars earning the eternal gratitude of the chronicler.
In the Christian kingdoms established by the crusaders after Jerusalem was taken in the year 1099, a mixed race population emerged called the Poulains. These were the (normally) illegitimate children of European crusaders and local Arab women. Sadly they were regarded as second-class citizens. But not by the Knights Templar who scandalised many crusaders by recruiting them into the order.
The Knights Templar also recruited talented Arab warriors as auxiliary fighters known as Turcopoles. They were never accepted as full members of the order but played an important military role. Many were eastern Christians but there were also Arab Muslims. This was no obstacle to joining the Templars.
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The legal charges against the Knights Templar
In 1307, just under two centuries from the formation of the Templar order, they were crushed by order of the Pope under pressure from the King of France. The king’s chief minister William de Nogaret trumped up a series of charges against the Templars including claims that they weren’t Christian at all – but undercover Muslims. How did he try to prove this?
Templars were tortured to confess that in their initiation ceremonies they spat on the cross showing their hatred of Jesus. These echoed stories told in the west that victorious Arab armies routinely desecrated churches when they seized them. And wouldn’t you know it, the Templars were doing the same thing – their prosecutors roared.
There had been incidences of Templars defecting to the Arab side but this was now held up as evidence of widespread double-dealing. Why, even some of the senior Templar masters could speak Arabic! Medieval Christians proved easy to convince that the knights they once heroised were actually villains all along.